All eyes today are on Jim Comey. Living up to President Donald J. Trump’s description as a “grandstander,” the dysfunctional, former FBI Director yesterday previewed his testimony to draw higher ratings. Comey is a performer who wants a multi-day show. Comey’s latest violation of protocol is nothing compared to his reckless and serial misconduct in the Hillary Clinton case, a conclusion shared even by Democrats until they resurrected him.
Comey’s self-promotion immediately enabled CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who also moonlights as the network’s unqualified political expert, to pronounce Trump guilty of “obstruction of justice.” The liberal but more sober legal sage Alan Dershowitz was unable to restrain Toobin’s hysteria. And do not mistake Comey’s 6’8” height for stature. Comey’s dramatic Q&A today will no doubt result in CNN (“breaking news”) impeaching Trump in absentia. Why involve the House or Senate?
Like Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, the no-longer-political-virgin Comey projects self-righteous gravitas, even while similarly nonsensical. Comey does not want to be remembered as the FBI director (a) who held the news conference documenting Hillary’s violations of the law and then rather than refer the matter to the Justice Department, he usurped the prosecutor’s prerogative and inexplicably pronounced the matter closed; and (b) who interrupted the presidential campaign to reopen, and then end, the investigation of Hillary, both actions implausible.
Had Trump not abruptly fired Comey on May 10, unceremoniously without grace, Trump’s inquiry to him that Flynn “is a good guy… I hope you can let this go” would be an unpublished footnote. Indeed, a prima facie case that Flynn violated legal disclosure rules on not registering as a foreign agent might be self-sustaining. But Trump further humiliated Comey recently as (Trump told the Russians:) a “nut case,” thus ensuring Comey’s enmity and retribution. Bad judgment and imprudent tweeting are not impeachable offenses.
Where does Attorney General Jeff Sessions fit in?
In a gesture of fidelity, the frustrated attorney general has twice offered his resignation. Of course AG Sessions did not expect President Donald Trump to accept it. Recall that Jeff Sessions was Trump’s earliest major supporter and his policy mentor. After Trump’s election, Sessions gave up his Senate seat and endured character assassination and defamatory confirmation hearings to become attorney general.
That was then. Now Trump unfairly blames Sessions and not the senator’s protégé, Steve Miller and Miller’s White House colleagues, for the specifics and inept rollout of the hastily drawn travel ban, wrongly overturned by judicial ideologues. Jeff Sessions should not be the fall guy for an executive order not vetted.
But there’s more.
Sessions had not fully responded to questions in his confirmation hearing about his interaction with Russian officials. In fact, Sessions omitted a routine Capitol Hill meeting with the Russian ambassador that included others; thus, the omission was an oversight. Sessions had no reason to lie. An honest and honorable man concerned about even the appearance of impropriety, Sessions then recused himself from the “Russia investigation” (whatever that is), and Trump was repulsed that Sessions was, in his view, soft and weak. That recusal had left in charge the volatile Comey. But when Trump fired Comey, on point was the respected Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Yet Trump then proceeded to contradict the White House version of Comey’s firing, that is, that Rosenstein had made the case against Comey in his concise and compelling memorandum. So a now-concerned Rosenstein recused himself in favor of a special counsel. But Trump himself has kept the “Russia” issue alive. Not a student of Latin, Trump finds mea culpa a curiosity. Instead, in his view, perhaps it all started with the Sessions’ recusal.
But there’s still more, and it has to do with policy, a casualty of all the drama.
By way of background, many liberals (and Trump critics) have collaborated with Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, Grover Norquist, David Keene, and many other major conservatives, including Republican governors, senators, and members of Congress, on criminal justice reform. The leading reformers include the Koch brothers and conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
During the confirmation hearings a gentler, softer Sessions could have co-opted some vocal opponents from central casting. A hardliner on immigration, Sessions could have advanced a reformist agenda on criminal justice and drawn praise from, say, Van Jones. But Sessions did not stake out such a consensus. Since then, his critics have depicted him as an anachronistic ideologue out of step with the conservative movement.
Asset forfeiture is the government program to seize and keep or sell private property that supposedly is linked to some “crime” — actual or contrived. Your anti-drug teenage kid borrows your car to take some friends to the movies. Police claim the need to search everyone and find a marijuana joint in another boy’s pocket. There goes your car. It could be your house. The abuses of asset forfeiture are varied and legendary; conservative leaders oppose it. Jeff Sessions supports it.
The federal government’s War on Drugs has failed, miserably, and at a staggering cost, in money and in human terms. Tim Disney (Walt’s grand-nephew) directed American Violet, which dramatized a true and not atypical case of racially discriminatory law enforcement, including the abuse of plea-bargaining. Federal money goes to counties that convict the most people, so police and prosecutors routinely pressure innocent defendants to plead guilty. Conservative leaders who favor broad criminal justice reform do not see Jeff Sessions as an ally.
More states have come to accept the medicinal uses of marijuana and also its decriminalization. For example, cannabis uniquely treats veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Libertarian conservatives believe adults should be able to use marijuana, and many traditional conservatives believe it’s a state’s rights issue. But Jeff Sessions wants the federal government to prohibit marijuana and favors strong prosecution of users.
Jeff Sessions is a decent man and a committed and devout Christian. But the evangelical and pro-family Christians who supported Donald Trump include many in the forefront of prison ministries that strive to rehabilitate inmates and reduce recidivism as not only the moral way, but also as a way to advance public safety. Jeff Sessions should celebrate this valued Christian outreach, but DOJ policies are seen as siding with the prison-industrial complex.
Many conservative leaders have documented the failure of mass incarceration and the unfairness of draconian sentences in the War on Drugs. There was a time when Sen. Sessions worked with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to somewhat reduce the sentencing disparity that effectively targeted mainly African-American users of crack cocaine and spared the rod for hedge fund executives who inhaled the power. Sadly, Sen. Booker, hoping to run for president next time, forgot all that and testified against Sessions. But Jeff Sessions has regressed: he hired as his assistant attorney general Steven H. Cook, a champion of mass incarceration who prepared the Department of Justice directive that all federal prosecutors seek the harshest penalties for drug offenses.
A couple of months ago Jared Kushner, whose bulging portfolio includes fixing our broken criminal justice system, met with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Mike Lee (R-Utah). Kushner reassured the very conservative Lee, a stalwart of criminal justice reform, that there was a new sheriff in town… a reformist Donald Trump. But on May 10 the attorney general sent a memorandum to all federal prosecutors ordering a return in drug offenses to mandatory minimum sentencing, often unjust and also linked to abusive plea bargains.
Jeff Sessions is a good man. But if he leaves the Department of Justice, the reason will not be the “Russia investigation.”